The Myth of Religious Violence

Is Religion the main cause of wars and suffering in the world?
Revd. Dr. Mike Michielin

            The conventional wisdom of Western societies is that Christianity (and all other religions), has a tendency to promote violence in our world. Furthermore, many argue that Christianity, throughout all history and across all cultures, inherently tends towards violence. Therefore, Christianity must be tamed by eliminating it from the public realm of influence. In today’s secular nation-state any religious adherence must be kept within the private domain because it’s assumed that only in the secular realm are people reasonable and peaceable. For there to be peace in the world all religious references in the secular realm must be eliminated. Indeed, much of it has, especially here in Canada (e.g. Lord’s Prayer and any reference to Christmas in schools).

                But, has this shift to the secular with the eradication of Christian influence in the public realm solved the problem of violence? Clearly, it has not. Some would argue that it’s still religion – in particular, Islam – that is causing violence today. To some degree religions, including Christianity, still are in the world. But, although we can blame religious extremists for some of it, the vast majority of the violence here in the West has nothing to do with religiously motivated terrorist activities. The secular state, and its members, continue to cause violence and kill people. We just have to look south of our border to the US to see this is true. Recent secular ideologies/states in world history such as Marxism, Fascists and even, democratic states in the name of liberty and freedom have kill just as many people, in fact, more.

            Therefore, it’s too simplistic to say Christianity (and other religions like Islam), is the main cause of violence in the world.  It is too simplistic because the assumption that only the secular realm is rational, peace-making, and sometimes regrettably necessary to contain religiousviolence is untenable. All you have to do is look at President Donald Trump and the secular notion of reasonable goes out the window. But also, the notion that religion inherently tends towards violence across time and all cultures is simply not true. How so?

            The proposal that Christianity is inherently prone to violence and thus, must give way in the public realm to, so-called, rational, secular forms of power is an invention of the Enlightenment. According to Enlightenment thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, the only way to stop violence between Catholics and Protestants in the 16C and 17C was by transferring public power and loyalty to the state away from religious institutions. By relegating Christianity to the private life and uniting people around a loyalty to the state you live in, peace will inevitably arise. Once we get rid of any religious influence in society, reason will take over and wars will stop.

            But, the transfer of power from the Church to the state during this time did not limit violence, but in fact, increased it. All it did was migrate the holy from the Church to the state turning the state into another religion for people to worship and kill for. For instance, the U.S. flag is regarded by many Americans today ‘with utmost mystical reverence’[1], which is why President George W. Bush could say that patriotism is ‘a living faith’. Therefore, keeping one’s religious affiliation private, but giving your loyalty in public to the state is merely a transfer of religious adherence. There is simply no historical evidence that the rise of the modern state saved Europe from the violence of Christianity.

            Even in recent history (20C and 21C), the secular nation-state has caused an unimaginable amount of death and suffering. The anti-religious Fascist state of Germany euthanized many children who were considered imperfect. And, as we all know, this secular state is to blame for attempting to eliminate a whole race, the Jews. Marxist countries such as Russia leading up to and during WWII, post-WWII Vietnam and Korea kill and slaughtered millions of people. Although there is no official count, many believe that millions have been killed in China’s secular state. I do not deny that religion has caused violence. But, it’s simply naïve to blame religion for all of humanity’s problems.

            The other false assumption in our modern mindset is that religions across all time and cultures are inherently violent. There is no doubt that under certain circumstances, particular understandings of Islam or Christianity contribute to violence. Yet, the development by Enlightenment writers, such as John Hick, of a concept of religion that is inherently violent across all time and cultures is itselfpart of the modern liberal nation-state power configuration of power. In other words, this concept of religion is not something that was simply there, to be discovered. On the contrary, it has been constructed by the modern liberal nation-state ideology so that peoples’ loyalty to God can be limited to the one’s private life and thus freed give one’s public loyalty to the nation-state. Although in private the western citizen may be a Christian, in public he worships the will and wishes of his country. If you don’t think so, consider this. Recent research has shown that Christians in the West would unlikely kill to defend one’s God and beliefs. But, many more of the same Christians would not hesitate, in the right circumstances, to kill for one’s country.

            Another problem with the notion that religions of the past, present and across cultures are inherently violent is that it all depends on what you mean by the category of ‘religion’. As I’ve already mentioned, one can just as easily include U.S. nationalism and Marxism as a religion along with Islam, Hinduism and Christianity. The problem with blaming religion for all our wows is that pegging down exactly what is religion is hard to do. Across different times and cultures what functions as a religion has changed. They’ve changed because, in many cases, they are products of human construction. The point is not that religion cannot be defined, but that it can be defined more than fifty ways.[2]What is more helpful to ask is, ‘Why are certain things called religion under certain conditions?’ For instance, why for western scholars in the 19C, Confucianism was a religion, but for Chinese nationalists, it emphatically was not?

            It’s important to understand that the religious-secular distinction is a conceptual creation of the modern, liberal nation-state thinking that is fundamentally rooted in the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Concepts such as ‘the West,’ ‘modernity,’ ‘liberalism’ are not realities, but ideals or projects that have been philosophically constructed and thus, contestable. They are configurations of power and authority that has created this notion of religion so that public loyalty could be transferred from, let’s say Christianity, to the emergent nation-state.

            Despite the incoherence of the myth that religions are the cause of all violence and wars, there are many avid consumers of this myth. It has served them well to marginalize religious discourses and practices, especially those associated with Christian Churches and, particularly in Europe, with Muslim groups. In foreign affairs, the myth of religious violence contributes to the notion that non-Western, non-secular social orders are inherently irrational and prone to violence. In so doing, it creates a blind spot in our own thinking about how the West is complicit in violence. Again, I do not deny that violence originates from such places. Yet, it doesn’t just come from that direction. By labeling non-Western and non-secular orders as irrationally violent, we in the West can easily justify our so-called rational violence against them. If they are not sufficiently rational to be open to persuasion, we must regrettably bomb them into the higher rationality.

            What benefit would there be if this myth was seen for what it is, a myth? First, instead of looking for reasons for all our troubles in Christianity and other religions we can ask the more important question, ‘Under what circumstances do ideologies and practices of all kinds (secular, religious, or ones that combine both), promote violence?’ In this way we can address the more fundamental reasons for why violence and wars happen. Of course, from a Christian perspective, this fundamental reason is the ‘power of sin and death’, which cuts across all human ideologies, religions and institutions. Second, abandoning the myth of religious violence would help us see in our society that choice is not between theocracy on the one hand and militant secularism on the other. Although no religious adherent can expect to impose his/her theories and practices on society as a whole, one can at least be a voice at the table. Lastly, eliminating the myth of religious violence would help eliminate religious stereotypes in our society that is the cause of unnecessary violence and wars. Fear, which is often the source of violence, is most often what drives religious stereotypes. Once people understand that the concept of religion as inherently violent is a myth, religious stereotypes, it’s accompanying fear, and the violence fueled by such fear will dwindle.






[1]President Lincoln said this!

[2]P. 119

The Myth of Religious Violence
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